Saturday, July 4, 2009

Strawberry Searching in South Western Ontario

Posted by Jennifer

I can stand a few extra papers blowing about the streets. I can tolerate the aroma of putrefying garbage, at least in the short term. What I can’t stand is the disruption of the farmers’ markets, which make it possible for city dwellers to eat fresh produce everyday of the week. Great news: as the second week of the civic employees strike ends, comes the announcement that all the markets will be running again next week.

Lucky for me, last week when they were all closed, I was in rural southwestern Ontario. Lunching at Auberge du Petit Prince in London, the food (salads, crépes) was only average, but worth the visit for the Lailey Riesling at only $24.95. Though listed as 2007, the vintage served was 2008. Whatever, it was the perfect wine for an early summer afternoon!

Heading north on Highway 4 to Auburn and Goderich, we stopped at a stand offering strawberries and homemade bread. The berries were the best I’ve tasted in what is a very mediocre harvest. Fairly large and a nice deep red throughout, they were neither intensely flavoured nor juicy enough to be perfect. Still, the quart disappeared quickly at dinner a few hours later. At $4.00, they were $2.00 less than I paid in Toronto for the same quantity.

Think old order Mennonites in Ontario, and you usually think of Waterloo County. East of Goderich, and north of Auburn along the Belgrave Road there is a thriving community built up over the last two decades. Along this road there is a sort of commercial district including a sawmill. But the “commerce” such as it is takes place on the farms. Turning left of the north road from Auburn onto the Belgrave Road, the first farmer offers eggs—ungraded, $1.25 per dozen. If they don’t have as many eggs as you need already in the house, the children (this family has 12) are dispatched to pluck more from under the hens. These eggs are so fresh that if you hardboil them right away, they are almost impossible to peel. In season, they sell strawberries and raspberries for $2.50 per quart. Cheap and no nasty chemicals.

One farm has a sign out front simply saying “Donuts.” Further along the road, the area Mennonite bishop has a very rustic general store with large gardens patrolled by armies of young children on the lookout for weeds. When we visit they have already sold out of strawberries but have the first harvest of peas, and tomatoes brought in from Harrow. We leave with some of the tomatoes which are tasty even this early in the season, bread and butter pickles which perfectly blend sweet and sour, and oatmeal cookies which look crisp but turn out to be just plain hard.

There is a familiar name along this road: Hillsview Greenhouses and Market Produce sell at several Toronto markets, including City Hall and Borden Street. The greenhouses are closed when we drop by but they are at Goderich’s Saturday morning market, held in the town square. So are several Mennonite families. Alas, no strawberries to be had. This early in the summer there was not much produce except for green onions and some lettuce. Instead several stands sell perennials for the garden, baked goods and home cured sausages. Two young Mennonite woman sell excellent butter tarts. Just as muffins have gotten sweeter and larger over the years, it seems butter tarts have too. These particular ones are not so sickeningly sweet and at a two-bite size, not so guilt-inducing. My brother-in-law, a health inspector, knows way too much about small meat producers so we skip the sausage, tempting though they appear.

The one place you must not miss in Goderich is Culbert’s Bakery, on West Street, just off the Square. They sell bread, cookies, pies, and scones but you can ignore them. The reason to go to Culbert’s is the doughnuts. If it’s a holiday weekend, best to call ahead, though they may not remember to box up your order. The doughnuts are all of the yeasted variety with interiors that are slightly chewy, like the very best home made bread. Like other doughnut makers, they use fake whipped cream in their cream variety but it tastes way better. Also highly recommended: raisin apple, chocolate chip and the classic standby, honey-dipped. Whichever one I sample gives me a little taste of home.